Causeway Coast & Glens Extraordinary Audit report highlights 'serious concerns'

Causeway Coast & Glens Extraordinary Audit report highlights 'serious concerns'

Northern Ireland’s Local Government Auditor has today (Thursday 7 July 2022) published a report summarising the findings of an extraordinary audit of Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.

The report by Mrs Colette Kane follows a direction from the Communities Minister in November 2020, for an extraordinary audit of the accounts of the Council, concentrating on land disposals and easements, and related asset management policies and procedures. It details the findings and recommendations emanating from the audit of land disposals and easements since the Council was formed in April 2015.

The report details four key themes found during the audit:

- The Council failed to demonstrate that it obtained best price in the transacting of land disposals and easements;
- There were significant governance failings in the Council’s transacting of land disposals and easements;
- The behaviour of some Senior Council Officers has fallen short of the standards expected in a public body, and
- The Council failed to have adequate policies and procedures in place to protect its assets.

Two particular cases, where a number of significant failings were evident, are highlighted by the report, relating to an easement granted in 2016 at Ballyreagh Road, Portstewart and a disposal of land in 2016 at Castleroe Road, Coleraine. The failings identified in both cases included;

- A failure to demonstrate that best price was obtained;
- Inadequate information presented by Senior Council Officers to Committees and Council to enable them to make informed decisions;
- Inadequate records kept of key matters; and
- The conduct of some Senior Council Officers falling well short of expected standards.

As a consequence of the issues found as part of the audit the Local Government Auditor stated that, in both cases, there is a case for finding the easement/ disposal has not been granted lawfully.

In response to these findings, the report makes a number of recommendations. These include:
-  An independent review of the Council’s governance arrangements, overseen by the Department for Communities,
- The provision of enhanced training to elected Members, to facilitate their understanding of the level of challenge and scrutiny needed when holding Council Officers to account.
- Council should take appropriate action where it has been demonstrated from that the behaviour of Senior Council Officers has fallen short of the standards expected of an official in a public body, and suggest Officers are referred to the relevant professional bodies as appropriate.
- The Department for Communities should carry out a detailed consideration of its responsibilities for this Council in light of the significant failings identified by this audit and take the required appropriate action, using its powers to intervene if necessary.

In the report Mrs Kane concludes :

"Throughout this audit, I have identified evidence that adherence to legislation and best practice in land and property matters was not part of the culture of the Council. There was evidence that Senior Officers were advocating actions that were contrary to best practice.

"This leads me to conclude that a culture existed of bypassing best practice and guidance to get land ‘deals done’ which set the wrong tone from the top of the organisation.

"In some cases legal advice was ignored and, on one occasion, inaccurate and
unreliable information was provided to the Local Government Auditor. There was also evidence of poor governance, for example, there was a lack of clarity over roles and responsibilities, with various Officers being involved in land transactions that appeared to be outside their remit.

"My review has identified clear evidence that the behaviour of some Senior Council Officers has fallen short of the standards expected of employees in a public body. I consider this should be dealt with through Council and/or professional body processes."

In response to the publication of the report a Causeway Coast & Glens Council spokesperson said;

“Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council acknowledges the publication of the Extraordinary Audit report by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.

Time will be required to fully assess the content and recommendations, and for Council to consider the next steps.

Work on this report began in late 2020, and throughout that time Council cooperated fully with the Northern Ireland Audit Office

Council has already made changes to its Land and Property procedures and intends to comply with its obligations to ratepayers and stakeholders.

The Council will meet to discuss the report, its recommendations and further action to be taken, at the next Full Council meeting on Tuesday 2nd August 2022.”

The full report can be downloaded by clicking above.

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has said Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council must act to accept and implement all the recommendations from the Local Government Auditor.

In November 2020, the then Communities Minister directed the extraordinary audit to concentrate on land disposals and easements and related asset management policies and procedures.

The Local Government Auditor has published her report which has identified a number of failings in the conduct and culture of the Council.

Minister Hargey said: “I welcome the publication of this report and thank the Local Government Auditor, Colette Kane and her team for their diligent work.

“I had concerns, that despite a series of requests to the Council for information in relation to its land transactions, it did not provide me with the necessary assurances.

“This extraordinary audit has demonstrated those concerns were very real. The detailed report has highlighted a range of serious issues that now need to be accepted and addressed by the Council’s elected representatives, Chief Executive and senior management.  All eight of the recommendations should be implemented in full as a matter of urgency.  My Department will support the Council as it works to address the issues raised.

“I am engaging with my legal team to ensure that all appropriate steps are taken should the Council fail in its duties to implement the changes required in a timely way.”

The full report can be downloaded by clicking above.

Geoffrey Moffett

Written by Geoffrey Moffett

Content Creator for Causeway Coast Community.
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